Plenty of space for ideas and charm
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 3, 2010
Art fans of a certain age will know the name Laurie Simmons, whose arresting, color-saturated close-ups of dollhouse-size domestic spaces were part of the 1980s New York photography scene that included Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. Now Simmons's daughter, Lena Dunham, has made a funny, affecting movie about growing up in the shadow of a formidable mom with "Tiny Furniture." Like the diminutive scale its title implies, this is a film of modest scope but deceptively big ideas. What's more, it announces a promising talent in Dunham, a filmmaker possessed of a refreshingly skeptical voice and a frank, disarming vision.
If "Tiny Furniture" takes its inspiration from real life, Dunham adds a layer of fiction, casting herself, her mother and her sister not as themselves but as characters. Aura (Dunham) has just graduated from college when she returns to the loft she once shared with her mother, Siri (Simmons), and the teenage Nadine (Grace Dunham). Greeted by a nonchalant "Oh, hi" and little else, Aura must confront the fact that her presence is no longer cherished in a household where Siri's career and Nadine's precociousness take center stage. When those two decamp for a college tour, Aura seizes on the chance to act out progressively more petulant boundary violations.
So she lets a freeloading hipster (Alex Karpovsky) sleep in her mom's bed and drink all the red wine in her pristine white cabinets (the source of one of the film's funniest leitmotifs). She flirts with a ne'er-do-well chef (David Call) at the restaurant where she works. And she lets her rediscovered childhood friend Charlotte (the fabulous Jemima Kirke) lure her into all the delicious snares downtown Manhattan has to offer.
Shot with just a consumer-grade Canon digital camera, "Tiny Furniture" has the intimate look and feel of such recent "mumblecore" movies as "Funny Ha-Ha" and "Humpday." But Dunham claims a space all her own within the indie firmament, evincing a wryly observant sense of humor (Aura's comic YouTube video about a dyslexic stripper has gotten 400 hits!) but also a darker, more serious substratum. When Aura reaches the nadir of her attention-getting stunts, the episode isn't funny ha-ha but empty and kind of sad.
In its depiction of anxious young adulthood set amidst powerful parental egos, "Tiny Furniture" could be the little sister of the extraordinary 2008 film "Momma's Man." Like that film, Dunham's dramatic comedy (comic drama?) renders the artist's life with candor, wit and 360-degree clarity. More, please.
Contains sexual situations, profanity and some drug use.